PREDATORS’ MEAT AND USDA POISON
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2000:
WASHINGTON D.C.––Opposing environmental priorities as well as the long-running conflict between wildlife advocates and ranchers are again on the line in Congress.
Representatives Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) and Charles Bass (R-New Hampshire) announced in mid-May that they would seek an ammendment to the Agriculture Appropriations bill for fiscal 2001 which would cap the USDA Wildlife Services budget at $28.7 million.
This would eliminate subsidized predator control for ranchers, consisting chiefly of killing coyotes, but would not interfere with killing wildlife under contract from other government agencies––for instance, to protect airports, endangered species, and golf greens on public land.
DeFazio and Bass sought a cut of $10 million from the Wildlife Services budget in 1998, when their bill was approved on first reading, 229-193. The vote was reversed the next day, however, after a night of frantic lobbying by Wildlife Services senior staff and representatives of the livestock industry. It stood little chance of passage by the U.S. Senate in any event, where members friendly to western ranchers chair all the key committees it would have to clear.
U.S. President Bill Clinton in February 1999 reinforced the role of USDA Wildlife Services by creating the Invasive Species Council and requesting a budget for it equal to the previous total USDA Wildlife Services budget. The Invasive Species Council is headed by the cabinet secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, and the Interior, and involves most agencies whose concerns include habitat management, but Wildlife Services is chief hired exterminator for all of them.
The main stated goal of the Invasive Species Council is to eradicate non-native species of significant economic or public health impact, such as kudzu weed, gypsy moths, zebra mussels, and fire ants. But the Clinton ploy split environmental opposition to USDA Wildlife Services, a target of criticism from both wildlife and habitat advocates and opponents of indiscriminate pesticide use for more than 30 years.
Some leading conservation groups continue to join the majority of national-level animal protection groups in calling for the abolition or wholesale reform of Wildlife Services. The Nature Conservancy and affiliates, on the other hand, sought the creation of the Invasive Species Council as part of their crusade to return habitat enclaves to pre-Columbian conditions. Other organizations, especially those dedicated to protecting particular kinds of animals such as birds and wild sheep, have welcomed the strengthened anti-“invasive species” policy ––which built upon existing National Park Service policy––as a chance to get funding for attempts to kill non-native predator or competitor species, such as feral cats and wild burros.
Congress prepared to take up the Agricultural Appropriations bill soon after both the National Journal a n d Washington Post published pre-Earth Day polling data from Gallup and the Environmental Defense Fund, suggesting that as the Post put it, “The public stands squarely behind the agenda of the first Earth Day, not the 31st. Gallup finds that the public frets a lot about air and water pollution; worries much less about ozone depletion, rain forests, and habitat loss; and cares hardly a fig for extinction and urban sprawl. The EDF poll got similar results. In other words, public priorities almost perfectly invert environmental movement priorities.”
The polls did not ask about Wildlife Services, but did hint that predator control and killing other “nuisance” wildlife ––as unpopular as that is––might still be the Wildlife Services task most likely to attract support. Killing animals to help biodiversity, on the other hand, might have little public support, and killing animals with pesticides which might pollute air and water would seem to have none.
Both predator control and use of pesticides by USDA Wildlife Services and parallel state programs had a high profile throughout the spring. Concerns about predators were driven by recent attacks on humans, continued oppposition to wolf and lynx reintroductions by the livestock industry, and hunter demands for wolf-killing in Alaska.
Pumas, the most dangerous predators in North America, in April pounced turkey hunter/caller Allen Sherwood, 36, of Los Alamos, New Mexico; chased hiker Walter Carter, 39, of Eagle Ridge, Washington; and dragged Victoria Martinez, 4, for 45 feet at Bartlett Lake, Arizona.
None of the victims were badly hurt. The puma who attacked Sherwood fled upon finding himself face-to-face with a human, not a turkey. Carter climbed a tree and dialed 9-1-1 on his cellular telephone. Martinez’ father Richard chased the puma who attacked her, yelling and hurling stones. The 160- pound puma apparently tried but failed to deliver a killing bite before letting her go, and was later shot at the scene.
Because the puma was so large yet inept, at an age when wild pumas routinely kill prey larger than themselves, ANIMAL PEOPLE suspects he may have been captive-reared and released at maturity––like many other problem pumas.
Underscoring the certainty that at least some captivereared pumas are at large, a puma kept by Mike Smith of Conway, Arkansas, escaped on May 14. Briefly cornered later that day by Conway Animal Control, state game wardens, and county sheriff’s deputies, the puma somehow eluded the dragnet and by May 19 was lost without a trace.
Most problematic of the spring 2000 predator attacks, however, was an April 26 incident in which a radio-collared female wolf tried to drag John Stenglein, 6, away from a logging camp in broad daylight near Icy Bay, Alaska. Stenglein escaped the wolf the first time he was bitten, as his playmate Keith Gamble’s golden retriever named Willie rushed to the rescue, but the wolf eventually evaded Willie and seized Stenglein again. By then a camp carpenter was close enough to roust the wolf and save Stenglein by hurling rocks.
A fatal wolf attack on a human reportedly occurred in Canada as recently as 1996, but the last two in Alaska were more than 50 years ago, and involved rabid wolves.
Collared in 1996 by retired U.S. Forest Service biologist and former Alaska Board of Game member Vic Van Ballenberghe, the four-year-old wolf who attacked Stenglein was not rabid and was apparently healthy, according to a necropsy. Stenglein, however, was hospitalized for several days after his wounds became severely infected.
The Stenglein attack came five days after the Alaska legislature reinstated land-and-shoot wolf hunting, banned by voter initiative in 1996, by overriding the veto of Alaska governor Tony Knowles. The Stenglein attack also came two days after the Alaska legislature approved putting a constitutional amendment on the November 2000 ballot which would exclude wildlife issues from becoming the subject of initiatives.
Former Alaska Board of Game member and co-sponsor of the 1996 initiative Joel Bennett, with former Lieutenant Governor Lowell Thomas Jr. and physician Jim Thompson, responded on May 9 by filing a petition to place a repeal of the reinstitution of land-and-shoot on the November 2000 ballot.
Dogfights with wolves
There was much less substance to reported attacks by reintroduced Mexican wolves on April 14 near Eagle Creek, Arizona, and on May 16 near Gila Hot Springs, New Mexico.
The April 14 “attack” was actually a dogfight, coming after a horseback-riding rancher and his pack of six dogs ran into the alpha female, alpha male, and two yearling females of the Campbell Blue Park. The male was in early 1998 among the first 11 Mexican wolves returned to the wild. He and the younger females retreated while the alpha female held the dogs off. The alpha female was later captured and returned to a captive breeding program.
The May 16 incident, alleged “victim” Renee Despres, 36, told Albuquerque Journal staff writer Tania Soussan, was a sudden meeting between two wolves and her dogs, Lexie and Libby, during a morning run. The dogs tried to chase the wolves. The larger wolf chased them back to Despres, who broke up the encounter by lobbing rocks. Despres emphasized that neither she nor the dogs were in any way threatened. The canines, from her description, seemed to be merely getting acquainted in the usual canine manner.
Eleven miles north of Duluth, Minnesota, Tom and Alice McCabe on March 14 let their two dogs out for a run that ended with two wolves killing the younger dog, Taffy, a 10- month-old yellow Lab. The incident helped ranchers and hunters to prevail in passing a long-debated state wolf management plan through the Minnesota state house and senate, which were almost the last steps necessary to remove the Minnesota wolf population from federal endangered species protection.
The wolf management plan went to Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura for his signature on May 11. It protects wolves in the wooded north of Minnesota, but elsewhere allows shooting them “at any time” to address an “immediate threat” to humans or livestock.
Yellowstone region wild wolves have also reached the population level required to take them off the federal endangered species list––barely. Five packs have been exterminated in Montana during the past three years for killing livestock, and in Idaho the Twin Peaks pack was terminated in March 2000 for the same reason.
Rancher antipathy toward the wolves was augmented in February by resurgent hunter opposition after packs allegedly cornered 2,500 elk in winter feeding stations near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, that could only sustain 600. Wyoming Game and Fish Department regional supervisor Bernie Holz joined a hueand-cry demanding that the wolves be “managed,” though their actual toll on the elk proved to be unexpectedly light.
The American Farm Bureau let pass the April 12 deadline for appealing a January ruling by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals that the 1995 wolf reintroduction was legal.
Coyotes reportedly bit at least four people between mid-April and mid-May, including a 12-year-old girl at Vanier Park in Kitsilano, British Columbia, Canada; Francis Burkeen, of Marshall County, Kentucky, who inadvertantly cornered a coyote as he ventured near her home to investigate garbage or hunt rodents; and two boys, ages 9 and 3, who was bitten on the buttocks and the right side in separate incidents in La Mesa, California.
The coyote who bit the 12-year-old girl was shot near the scene and was found to have just eaten a meal of fried chicken. The coyote who bit the boys in La Mesa is also believed to have been fed by humans.
Another coyote reportedly chased skiers and nipped snowboards during March at the Purgatory Resort in Durango, Colorado, but appeared to be doing it for play.
Mildred Rathie, of Bergen, New Jersey, in September 1999 suffered the most serious coyote attack of the past 20 years. She was bitten and nearly dragged into a woodlot after breaking her right foot while trying to kick a coyote away from a neighbor’s dog. But Rathie still avidly defends coyotes.
“I love those animals,” Rathie told John Cichowski of the Bergen Record. “Coyotes just do what they have to do to survive.”
Urban coyotes hunt cats to survive, as well as rabbits and rodents––and in San Jose, California, police reported on April 21 that a year-long investigation of 30 cat-killings attributed last summer to sadistic humans had turned out to be coyote work, as predicted by ANIMAL PEOPLE in July 1999 correspondence with the Humane Society of the Santa Clara Valley and San Jose Mercury News. Wildlife forensic scientist Darien Simpson found impressions of coyote teeth on all 24 of the cat carcasses he was able to examine.
“This doesn’t appear to be a human doing these acts,” conceded HSCV executive director Christine Arnold to two Mercury News reporters. “But a predator is still out there.”
Arnold––who previously favored the “human predator” theory––then asserted that the killer might have been a “rogue coyote,” appealing to the public for information that might lead to apprehending him.
ANIMAL PEOPLE believes the coyotes responsible were normal pups who started the public panic––as urbanreared coyotes often do––with their ineptitude in making their first kills. By fall, when they should have mastered efficient predation, mutilated carcasses no longer turned up.
Despite continuing public misunderstandings about coyote behavior, coyotes are increasingly appreciated for their role in controlling other “nuisance” wildlife, and killing coyotes in large numbers is increasingly controversial.
Responding to a 1995 Congressional mandate to emphasize nonlethal means of control, researcher Bruce A. Kimball of the USDA National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colorado, is reportedly close to developing scented bait pellets for use in distributing contraceptive drugs to coyotes. His preliminary findings appeared in the May 2000 edition of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
Coyotes are also getting a break from the February 2000 listing of lynx as an endangered species. This obliged the removal of coyote snares set for the past 10 winters along the Allagash Wilderness Waterway in Maine to protect deer on behalf of human hunters.
But Arizona Game and Fish Department strafed coyotes the same as usual in April to prevent predation on pronghorn in the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff, Winslow, and Petrified Forest National Park areas. And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in May had 10 coyotes killed at the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, just off Cape Cod, where hundreds of predators also including sea gulls, great horned owls, and blackcrowned night herons have been killed since 1996 to protect endangered piping plovers.
USDA Wildlife Services apparently assisted both the Arizona and Massachusetts projects.
2.2 million blackbirds
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service often hires Wildlife Services, and routinely approves killings of so-called nuisance animals, no matter how futile the effort––like the fall 1999 massacre of more than 17,000 starlings at the Knott Landfill in Deschutes, Oregon. After a brief lull, while researchers noted that the local starling population seemed undiminished, the killing resumed in February 2000.
Still, the Fish and Wildlife Service on March 31 rejected a USDA Wildlife Services application to kill 2.2 million blackbirds this year in the Dakotas. Unable to prevent an estimated $5 million to $10 million worth of bird damage each fall to a sunflower crop which fetches between $330 million and $500 million per year, Wildlife Services staff theorized in 1994 that they might accomplish more by poisoning the birds as they migrate north each spring, so that fewer would join the fall migrations southward. Because the Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibits killing birds who are not actually damaging crops, Wildlife Services poisoned 250,000 blackbirds in 1994 as the purported beginning of a five-year “scientific experiment.”
The numbers of blackbirds whom Wildlife Services tried to kill each year rose to 770,000 by 1999, but because the avicide used takes about three days to kill, corpses have never been retrieved in large numbers for necropsy, and little else has been documented by way of results. USDA Wildlife Services told the Fish and Wildlife Service that the project was not killing non-target protected species, including Baird’s sparrow, the grasshopper sparrow, and lark sparrows, who share range and eating habits with blackbirds, and are in steep decline. But Wildlife Services could produce no evidence to that effect.
The blackbird poisoning was suspended amid a rising stench over a USDA Wildlife Services and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources joint effort in January to poison the waters of the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge and the state-run Horicon Marsh Wildlife Refuge. The goal was to exterminate non-native carp. The outcome was that dead fish surged downstream after spring thaw to choke Lake Sinissippi.
At Lake Davis, California, meanwhile, the California Department of Fish and Game spent the week trying to net and electrocute northern pike. The California DFG poisoned Lake Davis in 1997, but failed to kill all the pike and ended up paying $9.2 million in damages to people whose drinking water used to come from the lake.
The growing disrepute of poisoning wildlife hints that the passage of the 1998 California anti-trapping initiative may have been helped rather than hindered by the addition of a ban on poisoning to language forbidding the use of body-gripping traps. At the time, members of the coalition of organizations who put the initiative on the ballot told ANIMAL PEOPLE that the poisoning ban was seen chiefly as a necessary reinforcement of the initiative, to insure that if trapping was restricted, more poisoning would not result.
A coalition of 37 organizations had in mid-May collected about half of the signatures needed to put a similar measure on the November ballot in Washington state, with 45 days remaining to complete the effort.
(To help circulate petitions, Washington residents may call 206-526-0949, or e-mail <email@example.com>.)